Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said its annual review of complaints 2020-2021 (published on 28 July 2021) highlights the ‘widening cracks’ in local government complaint handling.

Over the past year, the Ombudsman has upheld a greater proportion of investigations – 67% – than ever before. This continues an upward trend since the Ombudsman started publishing its uphold rate.

Despite being closed to new complaints at the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown (so registering fewer complaints than recent years) the Ombudsman still received 11,830 complaints and enquiries from members of the public.

The investigations undertaken over the past year have led to 3,104 recommendations to put things right for individuals.

There were 1,488 recommendations for councils to improve their services for others. Such as revising procedures and training staff.

This is a higher proportion of the total number of recommendations than previous years. The Ombudsman suggests investigations are increasingly finding systemic problems rather than one-off mistakes with local government services.

The Ombudsman is still seeing high levels of compliance with its recommendations, with councils carrying out those recommendations in 99.5% of cases.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“We’ve been issuing our annual reviews for the past seven years now and, while every year has seen its challenges, this year seems to have been the most difficult for local authorities.

“While the way local authorities dealt with the pressures of COVID-19 is still being played out in our casework, early indications suggest it is only widening the cracks that were already there, and has deepened our concerns about the status of complaints services within councils. These concerns are not new and cannot be wholly attributed to the trials of the pandemic.

“I am concerned about the general erosion to the visibility, capacity, and status of complaint functions within councils.

“Listening to public complaints is an essential part of a well-run and properly accountable local authority, committed to public engagement, learning, and improvement. I know the best councils still understand this and put local democracy and good complaints handling at the forefront of their services.”

Over the past 12 months, the Ombudsman has found fault in more than three quarters of complaints investigated about Education and Children’s Services (77%).

There was an increase in the uphold rate of all categories of complaint, other than Environmental Services and Protection, which typically include complaints about refuse and recycling, noise, pollution and licensing.

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Central Bedfordshire Council

The Ombudsman’s data showed that 91% of the complaints investigated against Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) were upheld. This is compared to an average of 63% in similar authorities.

As there were only 11 investigations, if two or three more were found in CBC’s favour, it would have made a large difference in the percentage of those upheld.

Additionally, in 20% of the upheld cases, the Ombudsman found that CBC had provided a satisfactory remedy before the complaint reached it. This compares to an average of 10% in similar authorities.

A spokesperson for CBC said:

“The Council has a proactive approach to responding to concerns from the public and in the past year 44% of concerns raised were dealt with on the spot, with the remainder being dealt with through the Council’s formal complaints procedure. Less than 3% of concerns (11 in total) were considered by the Ombudsman and in some of these instances the Ombudsman supported the Council’s decision to uphold the complaint.

“It is positive that we are above average in terms of providing a satisfactory outcome before a complaint reaches the ombudsman when compared to similar councils, however we are always looking to improve our services, and we welcome the findings of the annual review which will help us to continue to improve our complaint handling.”

Interactive Map

All data from the report, can be found on the Ombudsman’s website through its interactive ‘Your council’s performance’ map. The map now holds three years of data, giving the annual summary of complaints plus compliance rates and the changes which councils have made on the back of investigations, for each local authority in England.